A Comeback Story Centered on Transit and Employment Growth

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system will soon expand service to Fremont, California.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system will soon expand service to Fremont, California. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Bill Harrison, the mayor of Fremont, California, details how his city leveraged an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system into a major economic development expansion.

When the much-anticipated Warm Springs / South Fremont BART Station commences service later this year, along with the first phase of planned development immediately adjacent to the new station , a long chapter of Bay Area transit history—and obstacles—will officially come to a close.

(Courtesy City of Fremont)

It wasn’t an easy ride. From the get-go, the City of Fremont encountered hurdles with the Warm Springs / South Fremont BART extension. The Warm Springs Station was planned as part of the original BART system in the 1960s, but ultimately did not make the cut when BART first opened its doors in 1972. The extension and station were plagued with funding challenges that persisted well into the early 2000s, placing the Warm Springs BART station on the backburner.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and Santa Clara County’s push for “BART to San Jose”—along with a local sales tax increase to fund system improvements in Santa Clara County—finally got the ball rolling. In order for Santa Clara to make the connection feasible, BART had to extend its tracks through Warm Springs / South Fremont before making its way to San Jose. Slowly, but surely, funding started to flow in from federal, state and regional sources, and it looked like we were finally going to be able to turn the BART extension dream into a reality for South Bay stakeholders and residents alike.

Enter the 2008 recession . When the economy faltered in 2008, its impact on the BART project was mixed. On the one hand, BART was able to construct portions of the tunnel that would run under Fremont’s Lake Elizabeth at a significant cost savings. But on the downside, the city’s largest employer and Warm Springs / South Fremont neighbor, New United Motors Manufacturing Incorporated (NUMMI), shut the doors to its 5.3 million square-foot auto plant for good, leaving over 4,700 employees without a job. And an additional 15,000 supply-chain jobs were lost regionally.

Like many others, Fremont reeled at the loss. But the city also saw potential opportunities to reposition the area in light of the new BART station investment. Fremont received a well-timed federal Economic Development Administration grant in order to study different scenarios for reinvigorating the local economy. Land-use alternatives were analyzed in terms of projected employment, needed infrastructure and possible financing mechanisms. The results provided a solid foundation for the city’s future decision-making.

A call from Elon Musk. Eventually, the former NUMMI auto plant was sold off to electric car-maker Tesla Motors, which reopened the facility as its flagship Tesla factory. In the early years, Tesla occupied less than 20 percent of the massive building, leaving a few doubts as to what other activities could possibly occur within the massive facility.

A speed bump. In late 2010, news broke that 160 acres of vacant land surrounding the Tesla Factory were being acquired by Union Pacific Railroad. UPRR was determined to utilize the plot of land directly west of the new BART station as an intermodal rail facility or auto marshalling yard, neither of which fit into Fremont’s vision for transit-oriented development around the station.

City leaders went to work, wasting no time in trying to reverse these less-than-ideal plans. The Fremont contingent led by City Manager Fred Diaz hopped on a plane to Omaha, Nebraska, to meet with Union Pacific’s CEO. Of course, it was nerve racking. Nothing less than our vision for Fremont was at stake. After Diaz, Councilmember Suzanne Chan and former Councilmember Anu Natarajan made their case for community over rail yard and demonstrated just how valuable this parcel of land could be for Silicon Valley, we waited with bated breath. After careful deliberation, UPRR agreed to sell the property for a development opportunity if the city could rezone the land and approve development quickly.

A sense of urgency. The City of Fremont engaged the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to build up the Economic Development Administration’s previous work. Victor Karen, chairman of the ULI advisory panel and principal of Citybuilding Enterprises in Boston, spoke for the group in recognizing the great potential of Fremont to ride the wave of an improving market for new development. He urged Fremont to act quickly to take advantage of that timing.

Thanks to the help of ULI, a three-day design charrette provided organizing principles for planned land uses and identified key circulation investments, place-making opportunities, and other phasing and financing options.

In the meantime, the city secured a regional grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to prepare a comprehensive plan and environmental impact report for the broader approximately 870-acre industrial area.

(Courtesy City of Fremont)

Perkins + Will, a renowned architecture and design firm known for its collaborative style, creativity and innovation, was hired to prepare the community plan.

The planning involved extensive community outreach with landowners and residents in the surrounding area. Community interests clearly focused on the need for additional school capacity, followed by a local roadway infrastructure to serve planned development. Fremont decided to strike while the iron was hot and push forward with its vision of transformation.

(Courtesy City of Fremont)

Early success, thanks to a progressive plan. The community plan, adopted in July 2014, establishes a unique and effective set of urban planning tools. First, the plan sets development targets and land use mixes with minimum intensities for development (e.g., 50 units / acre within a quarter of a mile of the station and minimum Floor Area Ratios within half a mile of the station). Secondly, the plan establishes an overall vision and the following guiding principles:

  • Dynamic public realm (open space and public art)
  • Multi-modal transportation (streets, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian networks and transportation demand management)
  • Flexible and aspirational design criteria (building design, setbacks, streetwall configuration, ground floor activation, height, bulk and mass, parking, fire safety and building performance)

Using these guidelines, developers choose how to meet development targets and criteria through a master plan.

The community plan envisions up to 4,000 new housing units and 20,000 jobs. To date, two master plans have been approved encompassing 146 acres, including Lennar’s 110-acre Area 4 Master Plan west of the new BART Station and Toll Brothers’ 36-acre Area 9 Master Plan east of the BART station. The 30-acre Area 3 Master Plan by Valley Oak Partners is currently under review. Within Area 6, Tesla now employs approximately 6,000 employees at the fully occupied factory, and Thermo Fisher Scientific built a state-of-the-art diagnostics facility where it develops products used worldwide in healthcare and other markets.

The City of Fremont is extremely proud of the recent Urban Design Award from the California State American Planning Association for the Warm Springs/South Fremont Community Plan. But the true reward will be the vibrant district that emerges. The Warm Springs/South Fremont area stands out nationally as an opportunity to create a transit-oriented employment center, designed to attract an innovative workforce with 21st century living amenities.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—to look at where Fremont stands currently is a reminder of the Silicon Valley mantra that anything is possible. Like a startup disrupting a market, we’re disrupting what it means to be a city government.

Bill Harrison is the mayor of Fremont, California. (Top photo by Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

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